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SF, the Internet, and Doom in Colorado
by John O'Neill

Click on any of the covers below for a larger image.

This isn't the kind of thing I want to be worrying about.

I'm told you should only worry about things you have power over. I have no power over this. Can't really stop worrying about it, either. I'm worried because I have children, because I'm both a reader and a gamer, and because I love Science Fiction and Fantasy.

I hope that I'm worrying for nothing. But experience tells me otherwise.

It Starts With Genres in Synergy

Larry Elmore
This may take a minute to explain, so please bear with me.

In the mid-80s, the fantasy novel collided with the Role Playing Game in a major way. It's tough to pinpoint the real beginnings of the trend, but it's a lot easier to finger its first major successes. TSR's DragonLance gaming world launched the company's fiction line with a trilogy of novels by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman -- the Dragonlance Chronicles -- that became an enormous hit. At their peak, Weis and Hickman were proclaimed the most popular fantasy authors in North America since Tolkien.

TSR repeated the success with their line of Forgotten Realms novels, in particular the New York Times bestselling Dark Elf Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore. By the close of the 80s, TSR was the fourth largest publisher of books in North America -- impressive growth by any standards, and totally unprecedented for a publisher focused exclusively on SF and Fantasy. They published over a hundred titles in the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms lines alone, and many more in their Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and associated lines (click on any of the links for a recent compendium of titles and authors).

TSR was soon joined by a great many gaming companies -- such as FASA with their Battletech, Shadowrun, and Earthdawn lines, West End Games Paranoia, White Wolf, and many others. While there was no shortage of grumbling from old-guard critics, who found their favourite shelves at the local bookstore suddenly buzzing with bizarre and not-always-identifiable packaged material, it was hard to argue with the sales figures. Gaming books were bringing a new audience to fantasy, and they were bringing them by the freighter load.

You can certainly argue the weight of impact of fantasy role-playing on the SF and Fantasy genres, and people do even today. But I think it's universally accepted nowadays that the impact was very real, and in particular it changed the make-up of Fantasy -- both its writers and its audience -- forever.

The Computer Revolution

Doom: Hell on Earth by
Dafydd Ab Hugh and Brad Linaweaver
Today something very similar is happening. RPGs aren't the hot new craze among young potential readers -- computer games and the Internet are. Games such as ID Software's Doom and Quake, Interplay's Descent and Baldur's Gate, Star Wars: Dark Forces and Jedi Knight from LucasArts, Resident Evil on the Sony Playstation -- not only are these games enjoyed by a far larger audience than Dungeons and Dragons ever was, but each of them have spawned their share of novels and anthologies. In this issue's Mid-April Books column, which lists titles from the last two weeks alone, you'll find titles from most of the above lines.

A fad? Or the start of a new growth spurt in the field, one that could tease a few more young people over to the SF and Fantasy shelves, where they'll simultaneously be exposed to Jack Williamson, Orson Scott Card, and Anne McCaffrey?

Too early to tell. But the enormous popularity of online fantasy games, the growth of a multi-million dollar computer gaming industry, and the swiftness with which cyberpunk culture was becoming mainstream -- all of it smacked of the same dynamic collision of genres as the mid-80s. Except this time the stakes -- and the potential audience -- were vastly larger. Once again, it was hard to gauge the true impact with any accuracy, but I was certainly looking forward to measuring it over the next few years.

Unfortunately, the events of Tuesday, April 20th in Littleton, Colorado will likely have a very significant impact first.

Confiscated computer & games,
including copies of Doom

Doom in Colorado

On the morning of Tuesday, April 20th, Eric Harris, 17, and Dylan Klebold, 18, walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado with a 9 mm semi-automatic assault rifle, two shotguns and at least one handgun, and over 30 explosives. For the next twenty minutes to an hour they hunted their fellow students and teachers at short range through the halls of the school in a real-life re-creation of the computer game Doom, slaying thirteen and injuring more than twenty others before killing themselves in the school library.

Not surprisingly, the FBI searched and confiscated everything in the homes of the two boys that might be evidence. Among other things, they walked out of the suspects homes with a computer and modem, a shotgun, computer games and books.

The photos of Littleton put a knot in my stomach. I think anyone with children in this country had much the same response. But when I watched federal investigators carry a plastic bag out of Eric Harris' home containing multiple copies of the game Doom, this tragedy landed at my back door with a bang.

Who's Going to take the Bullet?

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold
When I was a manager at a small software company some years ago, there were only a handful of us on the front line in front of customers. When it really hit the fan, the most experienced eyes would glance around the room quickly. The unspoken question was always the same: "Who's going to take the bullet this time?"

When young people in our culture do terrible things, there is always a backlash. Many of you will remember the suicide of a young college student on the early 1980s, an event which triggered an immediate and very damaging backlash against the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons. The young man was very clearly disturbed, the link with the game was peripheral at best... but none of that mattered. D&D was an unusual, high-profile game that was poorly understood. Worse, it attracted outsiders, and it had a demon on the cover. The results were pretty predictable: for years afterward, I found articles about the "satanic game Dungeons and Dragons" and its horrid influence on the youth of America in a variety of newspapers and magazines. Some of the articles were well balanced and informed. Most were not.

There was no smoking gun in the college suicide case. The young man in question was not found hunched over a Saving Throw table, dice in hand. But D&D still took the rap. In contrast, there are a number of smoking guns in the Littleton tragedy, literal and figurative. And the body count is much, much higher.

In the week since the incident occurred, an incomplete portrait of the two young men involved has been assembled by the media. It relies fairly heavily on a handful of posts the two made to the Internet, a web page crafted by Eric Harris (on bomb manufacture), and a drawing of a young man shooting unarmed figures, also by Eric Harris. While I have yet to see anyone reporting on the case draw conclusions, I doubt that's far off.

AOL Profile: Rebldomakr (Eric Harris)
On the left is Eric Harris' AOL Profile page (a screen capture taken before the page was removed by AOL on April 20th). Click on the image to get the full-size screen. Under "Hobbies," Eric listed "Professional Doom and Doom II creator, meeting beautiful women." Under "Occupation" it reads in part "DOOMING the hell out of my computer! (playing Doom, a lot)". And "Personal Quote" finishes with "Shut up and shoot it -- Quite whining, it's just a flesh wound -- Kill Em AALLLL!!!!"

You could take that as a premonition of his state of mind. But you can also take it as fairly typical rhetoric for a dedicated and competitive action gamer -- the kind of thing that gets keyed between players during an online session of Doom, Quake, or Half-Life.

Sketch by Eric Harris
On the right is the picture allegedly drawn by Eric Harris, taken from his website. It has been interpreted as a possible expression of his planned attack. Much more likely, it's a sketch inspired by Doom. It even has the master demon from the game at the bottom, crudely rendered but unmistakably the same creature.

And finally we have Harris' bomb web site. Harris doesn't identify himself directly as the author of this document, but the indirect evidence is quite compelling. In this brief manuscript, the author crisply outlines a number of tips for successful bomb manufacture, including how to pack shrapnel for maximum fatalities. Towards the end he notes that gasoline is a troublesome substance to store, mostly because its smell is difficult to disguise and it's impossible to keep in the closet.

Taking all this evidence together, what do you have? Very little of substance. Believing that these fragments can give us anything approximating an understanding of this tragedy is akin to thinking you can fully comprehend Hitler from handwriting samples.


A tragedy of this magnitude needs a fall guy. The American national psyche has just been wounded, and shortly it will look for something to lash out at. Due respect and appropriate lip service are likely to be paid to the official investigation, but this process is far too slow to satisfy the public need. A great many young people have been killed. Someone needs to take the bullet.

Who or what will it be? Guns and the NRA? Excuse me for being cynical, but not likely. Rock music? The perennial favourite among scapegoats for youth violence, but there's little to implicate it in this case.

I don't mean to be coy here. This time I doubt the usual suspects will even be rounded up. In the eyes of the public, fingerprints and DNA traces are all over the crime scene, and they all belong to Doom.

Bad Moon Rising

In case it's not obvious yet, I think that distilling the roots of the Littleton disaster into a single cause -- games, guns, or otherwise -- is dangerously narrow-minded. Unfortunately, I also think it's almost inevitable.

DOOM (Screen Capture)
What is ID Software's Doom? Perhaps of the most successful and original science fiction computer game ever created, and the grandfather of the entire computer action genre. The plot -- such as it is -- is simple in the extreme. You are a space marine on the surface of Mars, part of a squad sent to determine why contact with a top secret research lab has suddenly been lost. Posted outside the compound, you hear screams of terror over the radio as your squad enters the base. When you follow you're met with a grim scenario: the researchers have accidentally opened a gate to Hell, and diabolic creatures of all sorts prowl the corridors. You are the last one left alive, and to seal the gate and save humanity you must overcome almost impossible odds -- including the re-animated corpses of your fellow soldiers.

The violence in Doom is unrelenting. It -- and the subsequent games in the action genre, such as Sin, Duke Nukem 3D, Unreal, and Quake II -- invariably place you in a kill-or-be-killed environment, where the only way to interact with others is violently, and the highest virtue is maximum firepower. There's even an infamous scene in Duke Nukem 3D where you can open fire on topless dancers. The games feature first-person perspective, top-notch graphics and sound, and as flat a learning curve as you can find in the field of computer gaming.

In short, the computer gaming action genre is not prepared to comfortably withstand the glare of public scrutiny. It is most especially not ready to defend itself against the charge that it encourages a culture of violence among our youth. While I have played many of these games and enjoyed them -- and think that the action genre is just now starting to field mature work with genuine plot and character interaction, such as Valve Software's excellent Half-Life -- I can see little in their packaging and marketing that will protect them from a storm of this magnitude.

When the storm touches down, I doubt it will make subtle distinctions. The shelves of science fiction bookshops are crammed with action gaming tie-ins of all kinds, from Doom novels to Resident Evil to Baldur's Gate. In large part they are inventive and fun, and a welcome addition, for all the energy and fresh audience they bring. But I fear that won't matter much.

The bullet is coming for the Littleton disaster. And I'm very much afraid it's headed our way.

John O'Neill

John O'Neill is the founder of the SF Site. He studied English Literature at the University of Ottawa and received a Ph.D. in Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, neither of which was successful in setting him on an interesting career path. He's worked for a number of Internet start-up firms, enough to be deeply confused at almost every level concerning the Internet. He is a Canadian living in St. Charles, Illinois, with his wife and two children.

Copyright © 1999 by A. John O'Neill

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